All I could do was nod in agreement with the parents of a defiant 17-year old. “We did this!” the mother exclaimed through tears. “I know we did. We never told him ‘no’ to anything when he was little.”
Sadly, she was right. As they sat in my office, tears and regret flowing like a swollen river, the realization of their situation became painfully obvious. They were nearly 15 years overdue on setting boundaries for their son. What he had come to learn was that he was free to do whatever, with whomever, whenever he wanted to. His parents stood by and watched it happen.
Or worse, they would throw out idle threats to him that he knew deep in his psyche would never come to fruition.
Their lack of boundary setting, and upholding of defined boundaries, meant a whole lot of painstaking, heartbreaking work was ahead of them. This could have been prevented.
I’ve sat with many parents of teenagers, or young adults, over the past 18 years, who were in similar predicaments- unruly teenager, defiant, belligerent, uncaring of anyone around them except themselves. It’s a well-known story. The question is always the same from parents- “How do we get our out-of-control teenager to get his (or her) act together?”
After I pose some questions and learn some history, the answer is almost always the same- “You should have asked this question a decade or more ago!”
Setting boundaries with your children, and staying committed to them for the long haul, is not easy. It takes focus and a strong partnership between you and your spouse. It takes tough love. It means that your life has to be adjusted, as an adult, to make sure your children are living within the healthy boundaries you’ve set up for them. After all, that’s what you signed up for when you became a parent.
Why are boundaries so important? The answer may seem obvious, but I’ve come to understand a few profound reasons from years of counseling families in crisis. Here are, what I believe, 4 reasons you should become a fan of boundaries:
Reason #1- Boundaries are critical for functional, healthy living.
You may think this is obvious but so many parents miss this. They compartmentalize their situation, or the age their child is currently, and chalk things up to “just being a kid.” This is partly true, but what’s at stake? The health of your family, that’s what!
When boundaries lack disfunction and un-health have soil to grow in. As days turn into years, the un-health takes such a deep root that health and functionality have little room to grow.
Reason #2- Boundaries have more to do with the future than the present.
I have met too many parents, over the past 18 years, that are wrapped up in what I call the ‘here and now.’ They are so concerned about their child’s well-being and making sure they are happy (which are not bad things) in the present day that they lose sight of their child at 15, 17, or 18.
The biggest question you can ask yourself as a parent is, “By setting this boundary now, and sticking to it, what kind of person am I creating in the future?” Evaluate the dividends of setting healthy boundaries for your children when they are young verses the debt of not setting them and having to clean up the mess (i.e.- out of control teen) in the future.
It’s similar to saving for retirement. If you sacrifice some salary and income in your younger years to invest wisely, someday you will benefit from the dividends of a healthy nest egg. The longer you wait the less of a dividend you will receive.
Reason #3- You will reap later, the lack of boundaries you sow now.
The old adage is true- you will reap what you sow. If you are fickle with boundaries with your child in their early years, you will struggle with them later on in their teen years, and beyond. You will someday reap the backlash of an unruly teenager who fails to understand the significance of the boundaries you are setting when all those years previous he or she was permitted to roam free, without restriction.
Reason #4- Setting boundaries for your children helps you grow personally.
With nearly every boundary we have set for our children, we have grown or learned valuable lessons personally. For instance, when we set the boundary of “TV only after chores are done and homework is complete,” it caused us to look at our own productivity and what we were leaving ‘undone’ when we sat down in the evening for some tube watching!
You will also have opportunities to grow when you have to enforce a consequence- like taking keys to the car away for breaking curfew. This means you will be your child’s taxi service for the duration of their consequence, and it will be inconvenient for you!
A friend of mine posted this on Facebook the other day, as it relates to boundaries, and I had to agree:
Disobedience always delays the destination. Just ask my son. One of these days, he’ll thank me for caring more about who he was becoming than where he was going.
When we decide as parents, to set clear, healthy, and defined boundaries for our children, we are protecting them from potential pain today but we are also pointing them in healthy directions for the future.
Do you struggle with setting boundaries for your children?